Thursday, May 15, 2008

How Technology Relates to Permanence, and What That Means for Christianity

In Canada, the Guardian reports today, people are using their Global Positioning Systems (GPS) for all sorts of things--estimating travel times, for example. Nowadays, it seems, you don't need a directional sense, really, and maps are becoming obsolete. Instead, you just turn on your handheld device and go from there.

Have you thought deeply about the changes the technological impetus has wrought? Many of us are so technologically linked that we could scarcely imagine life without our cell phone, our PDA, our GPS, our laptop, our television. The technology-driven society has changed the way we think about many things. We conceive of time in an entirely different way than did our grandparents. Our grandparents knew much slower, well-paced styles of life. When you can chop up every minute, and squeeze a conversation out of every idle stop, though, your conception of time changes. We also think of convenience in a new way. Our grandparents were not conditioned to think of every error, every malfunction, as an inconceivable imposition, but rather as a way of life. They did not have customer service, to put it bluntly.

In 2008, we are so used to constantly improving products, to around-the-clock gadget help, that when the Internet signal drops for even a couple of minutes, we throw up our hands, as if the world had just ended. What little connection we have with the American agricultural past, where a chink in the farm equipment could easily deprive even the most industrious farmer of hours of his workday. Though we are thankful for technological advances that do improve certain aspects of day-to-day life, we are also reminded with even the quickest comparison of the past that changing standards in technological production have changed not only our capabilities, but our attitudes.

There is so much more that we could say on this matter, so many more comparisons we could offer that reveal that the technology revolution is not one-sided, with only positive results, but is multifaceted, presenting our society with significant weaknesses as well as great strengths. One wonders in a more serious way about the relation between technology and faith. Reading David Wells's stunning new book The Courage to Be Protestant stimulated some of these thoughts, I think, though this is a subject that previous texts like Neil Postman's Technopoly and some of Wells's earlier writings caused to bubble up in my mind. The love of technology is fundamentally a love for a market, a realm, that is constantly shifting and reinventing itself. In this realm, new is the new new. That is to say, the technological sphere is obsessed and driven by lust for newness, new creations, new gadgets, new ideas. This mentality is good at stimulating thought and creativity, two gifts of the Creator to mankind. Everyone who likes and benefits from their cell phone, who finds email a useful means of communication, who enjoys a good movie once in a while, derives satisfaction from the technological drive.

But in yielding to the lust for newness, or even dabbling it, we expose ourselves to the negative edge of this blade. We also acquire an innate love for what is new and a subsequent disaffection for that which is outmoded. Sure, we balance these emotions; after all, aren't we constantly observing society celebrate that which is now "retro"? Yes, we do. But note that the window for "retro" items and personalities extends only about thirty-forty years back of where we currently reside. Things older than this span can qualify for "quaint" status, yes, but they are often simply passed over and forgotten. Other than a quick clip or two, most people have no interest in watching "The Ed Sullivan Show", for example. No, if we're in the mood for something "ancient", we'd rather watch a Beatles concert, or a seventies film, or music videos from the eighties. The technological drive, then, seems to sap us of a love for the past.

More significantly, the technological drive seems to push us away from appreciation of what is permanent. Because our current interest is constantly shifting and transferring itself to whatever is new, and hot, and sleek, and better, we gradually lose our appreciation for permanent things. We come to esteem not that which is tried and true but that which is novel and new. Faced with the choice between the hot idea, the cool trend, and the permanent principle, we're very much tempted by the technological drive to choose the former. This can have deleterious effects on one's approach to life, broadly, and one's theology, specifically. Though we might never intend for this to happen, we can transfer our love of impermanence and newness from the technological realm to the theological realm. Though we're scarcely aware of this transfer, though we had no explicit wish to make this so, we can make it with ease, and end up transforming our whole approach to theology, and life, and--dare one say it?--God.

In saying this I don't intend to say that anyone who likes cool gadgets is automatically paganized. Far from that. Rather, I'm saying that we should think about technology and how it relates to the Christian faith. We shouldn't simply think about which movies have swears in them or which video games our children should avoid. We should think about the very nature of technology itself. We may well remain engaged with it, and use it, and even enjoy it, but we should do these things while remaining aware of not only what we are doing to it, to the gadget or program itself, but to what it is doing to us.

Beyond this, we can say at ground-level that where we can discern a restlessness within our souls that conflicts with love for the ancient, permanent, unchanging principles of God's Word and the faith that flows from it, we must check ourselves, and take action against technological lust. If we find ourselves gravitating to theological trends simply because they're new and cutting-edge, we need to watch out. Some trends are helpful, but many are not. If we find ourselves bored with the Bible, and bored with theology, we need to watch out. If we yearn for something fresher and more glamorous than the local church, we should take care. In such instances, we may well be allowing instincts cultivated in an impermanent, impatient, restless culture to be directing our theology and our spiritual decisions. Our theology, despite what we might think (or what we might not realize, alternatively) is not cordoned off from the factors and influences of this world. It is connected to them--sometimes far too much for our spiritual health.

Enjoy your gadgets, then; use the incredible medical care available to many of us in this age; benefit from the advances that sprout up every day in our world. Use your GPS to find that elusive movie theater, your iPhone to order subs, your computer to find the Bible verse for your sermon, the email list to urge prayer for foreign missionaries. But do all of these things aware that you must shape your approach to technology, and that you must let permanent things, things originating beyond the age of the earth, to direct your life. Otherwise, it will not only be our gadgets that are impermanent. It will be, perhaps, our faith.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Agree with just about everything here. It's why my family takes long walks in the evening without our phones. We need the stillness in our lives. It's a chance to talk and looks at the birds and the dogs and the ducks and to say hello to people and maybe drop in on some friends in the neighborhood. It's why, despite Keller's call for Christians to move to the cities, I like quiet tree-lined neighborhoods of the suburbs. It's closer to our agrarian roots than the urban centers. In the suburbs, we can turn the noise off more easily.

Of course, more directly related is J.Ellul. He remains a hero on these matters, more than Postman or McLuhan. He understood the dichotomy. Efficiency is an alternative to faith. Efficiency depends on human ability to solve problems. As we've seen, human problem solving activities typically complicate things more than help them.

Clearly, though, problem-solving is necessary to keep our world running. But problem-solving that doesn't depend on providence and God's provision is farce.

8:42 AM  
Blogger Diane said...

I am thankful for Challies linking your article! My husband and I lament the lack of longitudinal studies on technology and society. It is increasingly difficult, even for a believer, to get a grip on the pace of information flooding in on us daily, let alone assimilate it! Oh, but the wonderful Cross of Christ...our only respite.
I especially appreciate the term "technological lust." Oh, how that nailed my sin! Thank you for this thoughtful critique.

11:32 AM  

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